After spending two months in the building, a visiting teacher once remarked that students at Saint Ann’s practice creative writing the way students elsewhere train for the football team. That observation cuts close to the bone of the English curriculum. Our theory and practice of the subject rise not from a list of set books but from a belief that reading and writing embody impulses of the same activity—a hands-on investigation of the way language generates writing and redefines the world within us and without. We regard English as a linchpin that vitally couples academics and the arts.
In the early years of the Middle School our major aim is to foster the natural ebullience and imagination that make children love the experience of reading and the activity of writing. We fiercely engage in these activities for their own sake and not as preparation for a nebulous or required next step. We believe that we best serve our classes by choosing from our individual passions, and our texts often include fantasy and historical fiction, autobiography and drama; fourth and fifth graders may read Tuck Everlasting or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Shakespeare or Coleridge. For the first time, a fourth grader discusses books with an entire class. Discussions are energetic and spontaneous, yet directed. Focusing on questions of plot and character, setting and language, children learn how to read and how to articulate their feelings and perceptions. Most of their vocabulary work is drawn directly from the readings so that new language has a context. All students read outside books, and most do not need to be prodded.
Young middle schoolers are poets, playwrights, and sagamakers. Their acrobatics in story and poem remind us that their inventiveness ignites our days together. They assimilate new forms easily because language is a magical tool for them, and in their creative work we encourage them to write what they want to write. They also encounter expository exercises like character portraits, chapter discussions, short essays, and newspaper articles. In open and assigned topics we teach them how to make complete sentences and how to punctuate and paragraph dialogue. Their spelling and penmanship are scrutinized; we want them to be both creative and careful. At this age grammar is still an unobtrusive handmaiden to writing. In exercises delivered in workbooks or generated by teachers, students learn spelling rules, wrangle with ie’s and ei’s, and practice the exacting skills of proofreading.
As middle school students mature, so does their curriculum. Beginning in the sixth grade, students think less literally, discuss abstract issues, move further away from immediate experience, and explore more subtly what motivates characters. Many students of this age, especially seventh and eighth graders, have a prodigious appetite for information and facts, and their capacity to take intellectual leaps grows dramatically. The readings become correspondingly more demanding, the approach to them more rigorous. While most texts are modern, many sixth graders encounter Shakespeare for the first time when they read and act A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Shakespeare is curricular from the sixth through the tenth grade, a primary player in many electives, and essential throughout the program.) Children in the sixth grade may read Harper Lee, Orwell, and Hansberry; most seventh graders read Macbeth and Huckleberry Finn; eighth graders continue with classics and much twentieth-century literature (e.g., Shakespeare, Black Boy, The Catcher in the Rye).
Insight, imagination, and argument ricochet in the seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms. Many writing assignments are creative but specifically defined; children write detailed character studies, visual descriptions, and style imitations. Translating perceptions from reading and discussion to essay writing is a painstaking goal of these two years. Believing that analysis both invites and requires students to explore their individual responses to a text, we proceed with thesis formation, paragraph and evidence building, and the crafting of short essays. In addition to writing on literature, eighth-graders develop a major research paper shared by the English and History Departments. For six to seven intensive weeks in the spring, the entire grade learns the step-by-step process of choosing and limiting a topic, researching it, scrupulously outlining it, and writing it. The project is demanding, illuminating, and invariably exciting.
All writing—creative and expository—is tethered to increasingly complex grammar and vocabulary work. Thorough mastery of the parts of speech and grammatical functions in a sentence is expected by the end of seventh grade. Eighth graders review what they have learned and also encounter clauses, modifying phrases, and more difficult problems in usage.
Short stories and poems, personal memoirs and plays—the creative experiments of the year—we share repeatedly inside the classroom. To broadcast student writing outside the classroom we produce an annual literary magazine whose staff includes seventh and eighth graders working with high school editors and faculty advisors. A seminar setting allows young students to learn about the editorial and production process. The delivery of the magazine to each middle schooler is an exuberant ritual at the year’s end.
English in the High School is intensive, ambitious, and increasingly analytical. Critical abilities mature enormously in these four years, and students further develop the skills and discover the rewards of creative analysis. We look for sensitive, sensible, and informed reading and writing. More explicitly than in the middle school we present a text as a work of art and as an intellectual and emotional flight plan. Most of us favor a deep, deliberate read over a swift one.
Ninth graders, entering the High School fresh and curious, encounter sophisticated literature that they discuss thematically and stylistically. They investigate stylistic devices, symbolism, structure, thematic content, historical context, and author’s philosophy. Oedipus Rex and twentieth-century American and European writers like Fitzgerald, Morrison, and Orwell form the backbone of the curriculum, but Shakespeare and poets from all periods are also in permanent residence. The students’ greatest challenge—and our goal—is to narrow the gap between the bursting of insights in class and the sculpting of ideas in writing. Translating their vivacity and intellect to paper is sustained, exacting work which they practice in numerous specific essays. Grammar and vocabulary work continues to enforce reading and writing skills.
Sophomores encounter increasingly sophisticated texts and demands on the quality of their thinking and writing through an intensive study of several genres. The first semester typically concentrates on drama and poetry, the second on short forms and the novel. Authors include Shakespeare, Faulkner, Camus, E. Brontë and O’Connor. Committed to a high level of skills in reading, grammar, and especially essay-making, we have created a writing conference for sophomores—a fifth class period in which small groups of four to nine students polish skills and work on individual writing problems.
The elective program for juniors and seniors presents students with flexible but demanding courses engendered by teachers’ passions and studies. In selecting a course the student accepts responsibility for its content and our standards. Electives offer depth and breadth in the study of literature and writing from a range of historical periods and genres. For 2013-2014 students chose full-year courses from the following titles: 20TH Century Literature: Modernism and After; The Art of Hell; Bastard: The Story of English; Big City Literature; It’s The Economy, Stupid: Money and Power in Fiction and Non-Fiction; Point of View: A Study of Narrative Perspective; Russian Literature; Lady vs. Whale: Studies in 19th Century American Literature; Telling War Stories: Writing and Art That Remember War; Tragicomedy; Wanderlust. The junior-senior essay, a critical paper or series of papers growing from the course work, is a major enterprise of the elective years.
While writing in the High School is predominantly nonfiction in most classes, we encourage and exult in our students’ creative work. Every English class participates in a week-long writing marathon, and all courses are threaded with creative assignments. Several times a year we invite published writers to read their work to high school students. Recently, we have had the honor of hosting such distinguished authors as Tony Kushner and Colm Toibin, Ishmael Beah and Elizabeth Strout, Meghan O’Rourke and David Rakoff. We exhort students to submit their best work to national contests and to the Saint Ann’s Literary Magazine, whose student staff meets in a seminar to select the contents and compose the book. At the end of the year the entire high school gathers at the Student-Faculty Reading. We read to each other, celebrate the writer and the writing, remember why we are here, and leave for the summer renewed and hungry for more.